Photograph by Tania Franco Klein, Story by Jack Houston
I take my phone from my pocket.
Not a single reply.
The WhatsApp chat had been a-ding! every few minutes, seconds even, but now it’s as if I’ve blundered into a conversation between a group of my friends, admittedly a group of friends whom I can’t see, or hear, and, indeed, a group of friends I have to come out of and press at something else to see who is actually there and whether or not they’ve heard what it is I’ve just said, but, all that aside, I’ve just blundered into a conversation between a group of my friends and blurted out something I imagined they’d all find hilarious, something I thought hilarious, too, saying,
‘Let’s get the old codger some rocket-fuelled disco legs with bells on.’
Which is of course followed by a long interval only filled with a complete silence, everyone side-eyeing each other and thinking, He just said what?
‘Old codger’ is rather obviously a terrible choice of phrase for a surprise-birthday WhatsApp group. Especially what with Lara (who set up the group) and Simon (whose birthday it is) been trying so long for a baby they’ve used up their three free rounds of IVF and will have to self-fund any others, which they probably can’t afford, not if Lara’s WhatsApping us to chip in for his present.
‘Rocket-fuelled disco legs’ isn’t great either, come to think of it, not with Simon’s sister’s multiple sclerosis, which isn’t funny at all.
I slip the phone into my pocket, take it out again, put it back.
Stella and I have had words. With each other. About our phones. Often comparing screen-time numbers at week’s end. Neither proud of our results. We don’t want to, as she said and I agreed, be the sorts of parents staring vacantly at our screens every time Sammy, who’s only three-and-a-half, looks up at us.
He’s already started asking ‘Why are you always on your phone, Daddy?’
He’ll want one himself soon enough. And where will his role models of how to use it healthily and sensibly be? Gazing down at their screens trying to find the answer. That’s where.
And if I’m not on WhatsApp, it’ll be Facebook, or, worse, Twitter, scrolling down various pointless conjecture from the famous and not so, only being shown those things its algorithms think’ll interest me, when in the feed I’ll see “How many times on average do you think you say ‘oh go away’ in your head?” and the little heart icon below it will be emblazoned with the number 460. 460! Whereas my recent tweet “Thing on @BBCRadio4 about avian flu passing into pigs and coming back more dangerous. Time to ban meat?” only managed to garner 3 hearts! And no, it’s not like I don’t know how these things work, or that I can’t see that Melissa Timpson – whoever she is – has several times more followers than me, but was her observation upon our current situation so abundantly more likeable than mine?
If only I could stop thinking about it, stop needing to have the feel of it in my hands, the reassurance of knowing it’s there if I’m waiting at a bus stop or queued in the supermarket or just at home, my wife and child in the same room and instead of talking and playing and just spending time with them I’m assuaging any possibility of boredom by utterly boring myself to death.
Perhaps it’s a metaphor. Me looking over my shoulder trying to keep ahead of what’s chasing me by throwing myself straight at it.
Ding! A notification! Wait, no, that’s just my sister replying to the photo of Sammy reading his Mr Men book. Yes, it was very cute. No, I don’t really care that she thinks that. She was obviously going to think that.
Stella’s taken Sammy to the little playpark I can see from our flat’s fifth-floor window. Over by said window and there they are, wrapped up against the cold, him on a swing whooping, or I’m sure he is whooping, he usually does, as she pushes him back and forth. I’ll just forget about the WhatsApp, leave the phone plugged in by the toaster behind me, go down and join them. Talk to Stella about dinner. Ask her how her day’s been, how everything is, really find out about the person I’m married to. And Sammy, also. Okay, so he’s only three-and-a-half and probably doesn’t have much in the way of a rich inner life but I could ask about his cartoons or something.
Ding! I rush back to the phone. A text from my GP about this year’s flu vaccine. Should probably change the text noise to something different from the WhatsApp one.
I’m getting myself, getting us, out of this, moving us far away from technology, the three of us selling this flat and moving to the highlands of Scotland or the wilds of Wales, nothing but the land, us living off the fat of it, nothing to set our clocks by but the rising of sun and the swing of the moon, only needing to read the wide screen of the sky for notification of weather, for warning of storm, the only net we will need the one that will catch the fat fish of the local river, the only communication a yell through trees or a holler over a field full of home-grown produce, the only search being that for a beast to bring down and turn its hide into clothing, the only thing snaring my attention the rabbits I’ve trapped for the pot, our only emojis those on our faces, our survival my only distraction, the three of us comfortably snug in our natural and pre-defined space.
Looking down at the phone I’m still holding I see someone’s said something.
No longer am I standing in silence in a group of previously chatty friends.
It’s Lara. Lara’s replied.
Lara’s said, ‘lol’
Jack Houston is a public-library worker from London. His poetry has featured in Magma, Poetry London, The Rialto, and Stand, and his prose in the Brick Lane Bookshop Prize and BBC National Short Story Award anthologies. He would like more likes for his tweets @jackmmmhouston
Tania Franco Klein's work is highly influenced by her fascination with social behavior and contemporary practices such as leisure, consumption, media overstimulation, emotional disconnection, the obsession with eternal youth, the American dream in the Western world and the psychological sequels they generate in our everyday life. Her work has been reviewed and featured by international critique including ARTFORUM, CNN, L.A Times, I-D Magazine, The Guardian, The Paris Review, Aperture Foundation, The British Journal of Photography, and has been commissioned by clients like The New York Times, The New Yorker, FT weekend, New York Magazine, Vogue and Dior. She has been exhibited widely both in solo and group shows across Europe, the USA, and Mexico and her first publication Positive Disintegration (2019) was nominated for the Paris Photo Aperture Foundation First Book Award. Find more of her work here at her website.